Hiking Kilimanjaro at 300 Pounds—and Finding Self-Love Along the Way

We chat with the author of the inspiring new memoir Gorge about Africa's tallest peak, writing with Cheryl Strayed, and a battle-won relationship with her body.

By Larisa Owechko April 7, 2015

The 19,000-foot peak of Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro marks the tallest point on the African continent and the world’s tallest free-standing mountain. It’s a remarkable example of natural grandeur by all accounts, but for author Kara Richardson Whitely—who has hiked the mountain three times while weighing up to 300 pounds—it also took on great personal significance as she grappled with compulsive over-eating and past traumas.

Whitely talks about these struggles and more in her new book Gorge: My Journey up Kilimanjaro at 300 Pounds. Gorge will inevitably invite comparisons to another inspirational hiker-writer (whose name is especially familiar ‘round these parts), Wild's Cheryl Strayed, who just so happens to be Whitely's mentor and writing teacher.

We caught up with Whitely to ask the writer, American Hiking Society Ambassador, and mother of two about her book—which Strayed called “fearlessly honest and powerfully intelligent.”

Can you describe your relationship with Kilimanjaro?

The first time I hiked Kilimanjaro was a celebration of my 120-pound weight loss. The second time, after I gained more than half the weight back, was in hopes that, by being in the same place, that I’d get back on a healthy path again—but I didn’t do the physical or emotional work to get over my issues with food. The third trek was about ending up on top. 

Which came first: the writer or the mountain-climber? Have you always been interested in writing, or were you driven to write after having these intense experiences with Kilimanjaro?

I grew up in Canada and Vermont and I had a rural, outdoorsy upbringing so when it came time to get on a better path, I went to the woods. Writing also came naturally to me so when it came time to find a career, I became a newspaper reporter. I suppose those two parts of my life were destined to collide at some point! 

In Gorge, you share personal experiences with issues like disordered eating and sexual assault. Does your creative process change when you’re writing about such intimate experiences? 

I found myself trying to rush through the difficult scenes in Gorge but I had to do what I did in other scenes, slow down and let people know what was happening. I had to provide details so readers understood how gut-wrenching those experiences were. With two thirds of people struggling with weight, I knew if I told my story with honesty—and the deepest, darkest details—that people could relate to or at least understand my journey.

You also write that you have experienced a lot of negativity and cruelty because of your weight—even from people who climbed Kilimanjaro with you. How do you handle prejudiced behavior, and do you have any advice for people experiencing similar bullying?

I suppose the easiest thing is to know that bullying is more about the people dishing it out. But that doesn’t really help the hurt, does it? Know there is strength and beauty inside of you. The more you rise above the negativity and cruelty, the more people will see it.

What’s your relationship like with Cheryl Strayed?

Like so many people, I fell in love with Cheryl as a writer and as a human being as soon as I read Wild. I knew if I was going to write my story that I had to bring the same bravery and passion to the page. I first met Cheryl at a reading in New York City and then in a one-day workshop in California. Those events and her Dear Sugar column “Write Like a Motherfucker” inspired me to write even when I didn’t feel like it. With a full-time job and two young kids, I had to wake up at 5 am to work on my book, I’d remember the line, “Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig.” Some days that was the sweet kick in the pants that I needed to get going. Finally, I was accepted to a three-week writing program with Cheryl in the French Alps, I used the time to finish Gorge, while learning from the best teacher I’ve ever had. It was absolutely magical and the perfect ending to my memoir project. 

Do you have any plans to summit Kilimanjaro again?

I’m certainly ready to move on to other mountains. I’d love to do Macchu Picchu. I’d love to take my family to Volcanoes National Park. More than anything, I want hiking and adventures to come naturally to me and my family. 

Whitely is currently on tour to promote Gorge (published by Seal Press and available in bookstores or online, and will make two stops in Portland: 

May 7 at Broadway Books: Whitely will read from Gorge after being introduced by Cheryl Strayed 

May 8 at Amelia’s Boutique: Whitely will join a panel to speak about plus-size fashion

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